GOOD

The Federal Government Has Long Treated Nevada As A Nuclear Dumping Ground

Nevadans pointed out the safety risks in moving nuclear waste along highways and railroads to their state.

A 2015 tour of an entryway into the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. Photo by John Locher/AP Photo.

Nevadans can be forgiven for thinking they are in an endless loop of “The Walking Dead” TV series. Their least-favorite zombie federal project refuses to die.


In 2010, Congress had abandoned plans to turn Yucca Mountain, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, into the nation’s only federal dump for nuclear waste so radioactive it requires permanent isolation. And the House recently voted by a wide margin to resume these efforts.

Nevada’s U.S. Sens. Dean Heller, a Republican, and Catherine Cortez Masto, a Democrat, have made their determination to block the latest Yucca proposal clear since the Trump administration first proposed resurrecting the project in early 2017.

While teaching and writing about the state’s history for more than 30 years, I have followed the Yucca Mountain fight from the beginning — as well as how Nevadans’ views have evolved on all things nuclear. The project could well go forward, but I believe that it probably won’t as long as there are political benefits to stopping it.

The roots of statewide resentment

Two-thirds of Nevadans oppose this plan, according to a 2017 poll. The state’s experience with federal actions, including nuclear weapons and waste, may help explain the proposed repository’s long-standing unpopularity.

When Nevada became a state in 1864, it had to cede all claims to federal land within its boundaries. This left the federal government owning more than 85% of the state, reducing its potential tax base, and angering ranchers who have chafed at federal controls and fees for grazing their livestock ever since.

In 1873, the U.S. adopted the gold standard, reducing the value of silver — large amounts of which came from Nevada, known as the “The Silver State.” After the “Crime of ’73,” Nevadan state leaders dedicated themselves to restoring silver as an anchor of monetary policy, to no avail.

A series of boom-and-bust cycles ensued. Nevadans sought other means of prosperity, including some that other states shunned. In 1897, for example, Nevada hosted a world heavyweight boxing championship when other states refused.

That decision and the state’s declining population prompted the Chicago Tribune to suggest revoking Nevada’s statehood. Similar calls cropped up over Nevada’s permissive divorce and gambling laws.

A magnet for federal projects

Tourism, however, became central to Nevada’s economy. So did federal projects, like Hoover Dam, which enabled southern Nevada to obtain most of the water it needs to survive.

World War II and the Cold War prompted numerous federal projects that benefited southern Nevada. A wartime gunnery school evolved into Nellis Air Force Base, and a magnesium plant led to the founding of the City of Henderson.

In 1951, seeking a cheaper domestic location for nuclear tests and research, the Atomic Energy Commission chose part of Nellis. Until 1963, the Nevada Test Site was the scene of about 100 aboveground atomic tests, with more than 800 additional underground tests to follow until nuclear testing ceased in 1992.

When aboveground testing began, Nevada cashed in. The governor welcomed the chance to see the desert “blooming with atoms.” Las Vegas marketed the mushroom cloud as a tourist attraction, as well as an atomic hairdo and cocktail. Atomic Energy Commission pamphlets and videos declared the tests to be harmless to those living nearby.

Distrusting government

After learning more about the health dangers associated with nuclear fallout, Nevadans began to trust the government less. Repeated leaks and safety issues at the nation’s first low-level nuclear waste dump, opened in 1962 in Beatty, Nevada, eventually led to its closure in 1992.

Distant nuclear incidents also stoked concerns. The nation’s worst nuclear accident to date at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania, as well as the Soviet Union’s Chernobyl meltdown, rang alarm bells.

Separately, some rural Nevadans came to resent federal regulations overall, especially after the federal government increased the Bureau of Land Management’s regulatory powers in the mid-1970s. Their Sagebrush Rebellion sought state control over almost all federal lands within Nevada’s borders and spread throughout the rural West.

The ‘Screw Nevada’ bill

As nuclear testing waned, the federal government scrambled to find somewhere to stow the spent fuel from nuclear power plants that had piled up in 39 states. In 1982, Congress approved a plan for the consideration of sites in Washington, Texas, and Nevada.

But five years later, without getting conclusive findings based on those studies, lawmakers voted to consider only one site — Yucca Mountain, about 20 miles west of the dump for less-radioactive nuclear waste in Beatty. The state’s leaders and pundits protested this “Screw Nevada” bill, which they ascribed to the state’s lack of political clout.

Around that time, Nevada created a new state agency to deal with nuclear issues and a state commission charged with warding off nuclear waste. A bevy of new state laws made it harder for federal officials and private contractors to obtain and pay for licenses needed for work on Yucca Mountain, and the state filed numerous lawsuits.

Sen. Harry Reid, a Democrat first elected in 1986, crusaded against the measure. So did his Nevada colleagues in Congress.

To make their case, Nevadans pointed out the safety risks in moving nuclear waste along highways and railroads to their state, and how terrorists might take advantage of that opportunity. They cheered when a “West Wing” episode zeroed in on these dangers.

Reid eventually moved up through Senate ranks as one of the nation’s most powerful lawmakers, serving as the majority and minority leader. When former President Barack Obama took office and had to depend on Reid’s help, he ended funding for Yucca Mountain.

What to expect this time

Obama and Reid are no longer calling any shots, and Nevada’s congressional delegation is more junior than it’s been in decades. The overwhelming bipartisan vote in the House suggests that Democrats may be less interested in protecting Nevada than they were when Reid had so much power in the Senate.

But Heller is up for re-election this year, and his is one of the few Republican Senate seats that Democrats feel confident that they can win in the 2018 mid-terms.

If Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell decides that enabling Heller to claim that he saved Nevada from hosting the nation’s nuclear waste will help re-elect him, protecting the GOP’s slim majority, I think Yucca Mountain will be dead again.

At least for the moment.

Articles
via Real Time with Bill Maher / YouTube and The Late Late Show with James Corden / YouTube

A controversial editorial on America's obesity epidemic and healthcare by comedian Bill Maher on his HBO show "Real Time" inspired a thoughtful, and funny, response by James Cordon. It also made for a great debate about healthcare that Americans are avoiding.

At the end of the September 6th episode of "Real Time, " Maher turned to the camera for his usual editorial and discussed how obesity is a huge part of the healthcare debate that no one is having.

"At Next Thursday's debate, one of the candidates has to say, 'The problem with our healthcare system is Americans eat shit and too much of it.' All the candidates will mention their health plans but no one will bring up the key factor: the citizens don't lift a finger to help," Maher said sternly.

Keep Reading Show less
Politics

There is no shortage of proposals from the, um, what's the word for it… huge, group of Democratic presidential candidates this year. But one may stand out from the pack as being not just bold but also necessary; during a CNN town hall about climate change Andrew Yang proposed a "green amendment" to the constitution.

Keep Reading Show less
test
Me Too Kit

The creator of the Me Too kit — an at home rape kit that has yet to hit the market — has come under fire as sexual assault advocates argue the kit is dangerous and misleading for women.

The kit is marketed as "the first ever at home kit for commercial use," according to the company's website. "Your experience. Your kit. Your story. Your life. Your choice. Every survivor has a story, every survivor has a voice." Customers will soon be able order one of the DIY kits in order to collect evidence "within the confines of the survivor's chosen place of safety" after an assault.

"With MeToo Kit, we are able to collect DNA samples and other tissues, which upon testing can provide the necessary time-sensitive evidence required in a court of law to identify a sexual predator's involvement with sexual assault," according to the website.

Keep Reading Show less
Health

Villagers rejoice as they receive the first vaccines ever delivered via drone in the Congo

The area's topography makes transporting medicines a treacherous task.

Photo by Henry Sempangi Senyule

When we discuss barriers to healthcare in the developed world, affordability is commonly the biggest concern. But for some in the developing world, physical distance and topography can be the difference between life and death.

Widjifake, a hard-to-reach village in northwestern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with a population of 6,500, struggles with having consistent access to healthcare supplies due to the Congo River and its winding tributaries.

It can take up to three hours for vehicles carrying supplies to reach the village.

Keep Reading Show less
Health
via Keith Boykin / Twitter

Fox News and President Trump seem like they may be headed for a breakup. "Fox is a lot different than it used to be," Trump told reporters in August after one of the network's polls found him trailing for Democrats in the 2020 election.

"There's something going on at Fox, I'll tell you right now. And I'm not happy with it," he continued.

Some Fox anchors have hit back at the president over his criticisms. "Well, first of all, Mr. President, we don't work for you," Neil Cavuto said on the air. "I don't work for you. My job is to cover you, not fawn over you or rip you, just report on you."

Keep Reading Show less
Politics